Thursday, 29 October 2015

Matthew 6:6

Ejsmond The Anchorite For some time now I've wanted to write The Big Book of Un-Preached Sermons, a disquisition on the Shadow Gospel: that body of Christic teaching that remains largely unknown to lay Christians, owing to surgical inaction by church leaders.

It's a remarkably large canon.

My all-time favourite constituent, and one that continues to be a cornerstone of my Zen practice, is Matthew 6:6:
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
I've never heard any clerical commentary on this directive. Reasons aren't hard to divine; Christian militants often use public prayer as a form of demonstration, even confrontation. Some will performance-pray at the drop of a hat, and given the chance, force it into public spaces and government proceedings. These people don't even seem to own a closet, let alone know how to use it.

Sadly, their detractors seldom include other Christians. At least not ones objecting on doctrinal grounds. Still, the Christ of Matthew is categorical: prayer is not prayer when others can see it.

It's not a minor point. What's at issue is nothing less that the total undoing – or at least the not-doing – of the central practice Jesus gave his disciples.

Speaking of central practices, you know what else is not itself in public?


I've held forth many times (here and here and here and here and here and here) on the strange fact that Buddhism – a solitary eremitical religion founded by the solitary eremitical Buddha – has become a pyramid scheme, to the point that actual Buddhic practitioners are now viewed as heretics. Strangest of all is the contention that the only "real" practice is collective. Authentic zazen, I'm assured, only happens when you sit with others – the more, the better. I've also been informed that the solitary sesshins I sit four times a year… aren't. Same rationale: it's only meditation if someone else is watching.

The greatest danger of this hokum is not that it reverses the Buddha's teaching and lifelong example. It's that it's crap.

I've meditated in public. I was a committed Zen centre member for several years, during which I sat formal zazen in the zendo with the assembled sangha at least twice a week. Even as a hermit, I sometimes sit in circumstances where passersby may, uh… pass by. And I'm here to tell you that the moment onlookers – or even the possibility of onlookers – enter the mix, meditation goes right out the window. Now you're playing "look-how-Zen-I-am": all posture and reputation and approval. That's not practicing. It's acting.

Jesus got this. The instant others see you praying, you stop talking to God and start talking to them. In fact, you start lying to them, about talking to God. You pile sin on top of apostasy on top of wasted effort.

It's true that diligent practice can overcome this: I once experienced kensho at the end of a zendo sesshin. I stopped caring about the opinions of peers and entered a state of unselfed clarity for a few hours. But it wasn't any deeper than the kensho I've experienced alone, and the presence of others was an impediment to it, not a catalyst.

I believe collective zazen, like collective prayer, can be a valid form. It rarely accomplishes the goals of Buddhic practice, but it may achieve others that, though less vital, are nonetheless worthwhile. (It can build community and shore up personal resolve.)

However, when public displays of communion are weaponised – when they're used to intimidate or indoctrinate – then the sangha must step up and restore right action.

(The Anchorite, by Franciszek Ejsmond, courtesy of the Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

WW: Zafu cat

(Putting my meditation cushion to productive use.)

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Stupid Wisdom

Sulovskie skaly 06 I always massage a broken heart with danger. Once, in college, I memorialised a girlfriend's abrupt adieu by riding my bike a hundred miles up the side of Mt. Rainier and back in a single day.

It helped. I don't know why.

Not long after I fell in love again, and not long after that, got bounced again. Days later found me high on a sheer rock face, alone, with little experience or equipment.

I almost didn't survive that one.

The memory of that September morning remains vivid, these many years gone. The scent of sun-baked basalt and cool alpine air, the grey stone driving into my gut like a terrestrial fist, and once again I'm crimped over a ledge, cheek pressed against the Olympics. Below, the toes of my hiking boots are wedged against a shallow nub in an otherwise featureless surface, while above I'm literally clinging by my fingerprint ridges to the shelf's base. Hanging between worlds, I am simultaneously of one piece with the mountain, and apart from it.

Backing down is not an option; toeholds are few, and I can't see to find them. I can't climb for the same reason. So I cling, and ponder. Indian summer makes my palms sweat, and that makes them slip, in tiny jerks that send electric jolts through my body. Yet I'm strangely detached, as if it's all happening to someone else.

I suck in a lungful of air, and my expanding chest deducts another quarter-inch from my account.

The fall, fifty feet to jagged rocks, will surely kill me. I could channel my strength into a desperate upward surge, but my boots might slip and their weight drag me to my death. On the other hand, if I deliberate much longer, the problem will solve itself.

Calmly, I choose to panic.

Knotting the muscles in my legs, I shove off hard, back arched, arms thrust forward like a competition swimmer. My face makes a sickening thud against the outcrop, but my fingertips find a crevice in the blind rock. I jam my knuckles in, head throbbing, lips numb and swelling, and hang. My boots kick briefly in the void, then find a ripple of their own. Chin clenched against the ledge, I cling again, and gasp, and wait for the nausea to pass. A rivulet of blood trickles from my nose, down the rock, and into my tee shirt. But I'm well-belayed, suspended by my own skeleton. A leaden heel flung over the rim, and I throw my arse into the job and flop onto the deck like a halibut.

For a long time I just lie in the hot grit, trembling, an arm tossed over my eyes, and wheeze. At length, choking on the blood now flowing backward, I rise to half lotus, clamp a bandana over my nose, and pant through my mouth. Golden morning whispers the dry bunchgrass that tufts the cracks. A Steller's jay screams in the treetops below, neon blue among the needles. And far below that a forested valley stretches, pristine and wild, to the edge of the world.

At last the bleeding stops, and sometime later, the singing in my spine. I fill my mouth with cold water and lie back down.

That day I decided I'd got what I came for. Since then, my heartache remedies trend to solitary journeys through remote places.

Dangerous, yes. But not stupid.

(Adapted from Rough Around the Edges: A Journey Around Washington's Borderlands, copyright RK Henderson. Photo of a guy doing it right courtesy of Jakub Botwicz and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

WW: Rare mushroom

(To the best of my ability to determine, this is the European honey mushroom Armillaria cepistipes. In the late 90s, specimens collected by mycologist Tom Volk led to the first positive ID of this species in North America, at a site in the Olympic Mountains. That's just across the bay from the site of this photo. These two were part of an effusive inflorescence growing in the litter of a well-rotted log. [A former trunk of Acer macrophyllum, unless I miss my guess.]

I ate them.)

Thursday, 15 October 2015


2013-07-27 20-19-03-diptera

Where there are humans
you'll find flies
and Buddhas


(Photograph of Musca domestica joining the picnic courtesy of Thomas Besson and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

WW: 'Nother earthstar

(Geastrum saccatum; a clearer explanation of the common name
than I uploaded last autumn.)

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Christian Meditation

In the late 40s, a British Colonial Service officer named John Main began to frequent a Hindu ashram in Malaysia. There, in meditation, the devout Catholic finally tasted his life's ambition: to sit in the presence of God. At length he approached the abbot about converting to Hinduism. The guru's reply astonished him:


Like most Westerners, Main assumed all religions were about signing people up. But Hinduism (and Zen) actually discourages conversion. One's path is an invaluable, hard-won treasure; throwing it away to start all over again is a bad strategy, if you can help it.

Instead, the guru told Main to find a Christian way of meditation. The idea intrigued the Anglo-Irishman. Was there such a thing? He returned to the UK, became a Benedictine monk, and spent the rest of his life researching and resurrecting a form that had indeed, he discovered, once been central to Christian practice.

As one might imagine, there was some blowback. Notwithstanding Main's watertight historical case – the Desert Fathers, a prominent early Christian lineage, made sitting a pillar of their monastic practice, as did such seminal Church figures as John Cassian and John of the Cross – many insisted that meditation was unChristian by definition, on the well-worn pretexts that "I've never heard of it before" and "non-Christians do it." (For the record, they/we also pray, though I've yet to hear any Christian call down the Lord on prayer.)

And then came 1962. In that year, Pope John XXIII convened his now-famous Concilium Oecumenicum Vaticanum Secundum, otherwise known as the Second Vatican Council. The goal of this historic in-house revolution was to modernise, democratise, and personalise the Church. Main's reconstituted meditation lineage, envisioned as a loose œcumenical affiliation of small, often lay-led groups, fit the bill perfectly. He was given the Pope's blessing and a building in Montréal, and told to make it happen. The result was the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM), or Christian Meditation for short.

There being no Zen centre nearby when I began my own practice, I sat with the local Franciscans, who led a WCCM group, for almost two years. (Nor was I alone; one of my brothers there was a Vajrayana lay practitioner.)

There I discovered that WCCM-model sitting is virtually identical to zazen. A typical weekly meeting starts with a few minutes of teaching from the group leader – generally a brief elaboration on some point of mindfulness, with supporting Bible references – and then a few bars of soothing music, ceding to silence. (Some groups use a Buddhist-style singing bowl instead of music.) Group members repeat the mantra "Maranatha" inwardly, by way of stilling their thoughts and letting God get a word in edgewise. Afterward the music comes back up, or the keisu rings, and meditation ends. There may be shared commentary, or the session may simply disband, amid smiles and "see ya next week"s. The entire ritual takes an hour.

Some groups sit Asian-style, on zafus and zabutons, while others sit on chairs, as mine did. Lotus-sitting groups may follow the Tibetan aesthetic, or Japanese Zen; somewhere there may be a Hindu one. How these matters are decided I don't know, but it's just cosmetic; the practice remains the same.

I remain a major fan of Christian Meditation, and recommend it to the many Christians I meet who voice interest in Zen or meditation. The teaching is indeed œcumenical; there are no specifically Catholic elements in it, and no need for anyone to feel uncomfortable, regardless of denomination. (And you got that from two Buddhists.)

So Christians who hunger for a meditation practice should check out the WCCM. Sadly, there are not as many groups as the lineage deserves, but most large cities have at least one. A good place to start is the WCCM website.

Failing that, contact your local Catholic parish. You might have to insist a little; even among Catholics, Christian Meditation has yet to become a household word. If it turns out there is in fact no group nearby, talk to the priest about starting one. (You don't have to be Catholic to talk to a priest or to ask him for help, yea though Protestant eyes sometimes grow large when I suggest this.)

Any road, if you're looking to "be still and know that I am God", this-here'll get it done.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

WW: Screamin' Eagle

(Emphasis on "screaming".)

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Street Level Zen: Keepin' It On The Corner

Feral pigeon -Empire State Building, New York City, USA-31Aug2008

What does the universe expanding have to do with you?
This is Brooklyn.
Brooklyn is not expanding.

Woody Allen

(Bird's eye vista of the non-elastic side of the East River courtesy of Wikimedia and a generous photographer.)